A lapsed Catholic and celibate gay, Terence Davies has never lost his passion for directing, he tells Pádraic Killeen
THE Darklight film festival has a distinct identity. Begun in 1999, the festival celebrates independent film but is receptive to technical and stylistic innovation in all visual media.
Having British director Terence Davies as guest of honour this year is appropriate. The Liverpudlian’s films, frequently set in the 1950s England of his childhood, seem out-of-step with Darklight’s contemporary sensibility, but Davies is a visionary, a filmmaker who explores time and memory. His narratives are enchanting experiments with image and sound, and intensely emotional.
Davies will be publicly interviewed and there is a retrospective of his films, including Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), which both invoke poignant aspects of his childhood. Davies grew up in a large, Catholic, working-class family, and both of these films revive the 1950s era in décor, song and sadness. Davies’s childhood was difficult. He had a violent father (who died when Davies was seven) and in adolescence he struggled with his homosexuality and loss of devout Catholicism.
Cinema became an alternative religion, says Davies, and he recalls with reverie his trips to the ‘pictures’ as a child. “It was like a religious experience for me,” he says. “I didn’t realise that for many years later. It was the same passion. And I was a devout Catholic until I was 22.”
Now 66, Davies’s loss of faith still exercises him. In his wonderful 2008 film, Of Time And The City, he pores over old footage of Liverpool while delivering a lyrical memoir. Davies reflects solemnly on his faith before proclaiming, almost wounded: “Suddenly, I knew it was a lie.” His hurt is palpable: the hurt of the once-devout now disillusioned.
“It’s worse than disillusionment,” says Davies. “I think you feel betrayed. I, literally, did pray until my knees bled and no succour came at all. It was awful. I couldn’t go through those years again. But, once it’s gone, there’s a huge hole. There are lots of Catholic things still inside me. I have a terror of the sin of pride. I can’t bear the arrogance of a lot of filmmakers. I can’t bear it and I don’t want to end up like that. There is still a constant vigil in me. I examine my conscience every day and say to myself ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ and ‘I must not do that again.’ That’s one way Catholicism is so pernicious, because you never get it out of your system. It’s always there — even though I know that I’m an atheist. It’s absurd.”
His homosexuality greatly informed his crisis of faith. “It was a huge terror for me,” says Davies. “And it was illegal then — that was really frightening. Because of the way that Catholicism was taught then, it was implied that when people got married they had sex, but it was for reproduction. It was not for pleasure. Even that was sort of dirty, and at least a venal sin. But when your teachers don’t tell you anything about any other kind of sexuality, and then you come to it yourself — as in my case, when I realised I was gay — the implication has to be that you are beyond the pale, you are beyond the grace of God. That’s the implication, which is why I tried to be pure in thought, word, and deed. This is why I spent so many years on my knees praying for succour and help, and it never came. And because of that — Catholicism being instilled in me when I was a young person — it frightened me and I still carry that residue.”
Davies’s conflicts over his homosexuality and his lapsed faith still affect him. He has been celibate for years. “The residue of being a Catholic and being gay, and being celibate, has quite frankly ruined my private life,” he says. “I wish I could get rid of it tomorrow, but I can’t, I’m stuck with it. It has made life a lot bleaker than it could have been.”
Yet Davies — as the warmth in his films attests — also believes in the things that make a life liveable. “You’ve got to retain passion and you’ve also got to have a sense of humour,” he says. “If you don’t have a sense of humour, you really are dead, because laughter is really life-affirming, I think.”
The affirmation of life, even in the face of terror, and the residual power of memory, are the great themes of Davies’s films. However, while Davies is thoughtful and forthright in conversation, he finds it difficult to think about his work or assess it.
“There are several repeated motifs that are in my films,” he says. “One is a subject standing by a window or looking through a window. That really comes from my love of Vermeer. I love the way he uses light falling on objects, particularly on women and on clothes.
“And then there’s this fixation with looking at a house — at the corridors, the stairs, all those things. For some reason, these images are a huge well inside of me. But it’s very difficult to have an aesthetic distance on your work. I can’t have a dispassionate view of what I’ve done, because, as soon as I compare them to the films that I adore and love, they seem feeble.”
Among the films that Davies adores are some of the great Hollywood melodramas by Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk. Yet his influences are diverse, he says: “It’s an amalgam of all sorts of things, including the fact that every time there was a singsong, my mum, whose father was from Dublin, would sing rebel songs like Kevin Barry. I always used to cry when she sang it, because it’s so sentimental but so terribly sad, as well. But it’s an admixture of all those things. It’s not just films. It’s what we notice on the street. Seeing a cobbled street covered in light and a little rain. We’re all an amalgam of everything that we’ve heard and seen.”
* The Darklight festival runs from Aug 23-26. www.darklight.ie
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